Preview The Book
By Terry A. McNealy
Bucks and Hunterdon counties have multitudes of historical markers along their roadsides, marking places where historical events took place and important historic buildings. Many have been marked by the state’s Historical and Museum Commission, which has for many years had a program of erecting its familiar blue and gold markers. Some towns and townships have set up their own programs to mark local sites of historical interest, as New Hope recently has.
But the area’s historical record is much deeper and richer than is evidenced by even the large number of historical markers. As you drive around our counties, close observation and informed inquiry can introduce you to many more details of our local heritage.
With the price of gas these days, many people are choosing to stay local in their travels, and it can be rewarding to dig deeper into local history than they might have in past years, exploring the back roads that are not that far from home.
Some of our historic sites are iconic, like covered bridges and old churches and meeting houses, canals and carefully preserved historic sites ranging from Pennsbury Manor to Fonthill to Pearl Buck’s house, and from Prallsville Mills to the Doric House to the complex of historic buildings at Clinton. There are many guidebooks and websites to lead you to these important features of our historic landscape, all of which are well worth visiting.
However, to look beyond these well-known sites is to explore the true extent of both our local history and the degree to which parts of it remain for us to enjoy and learn from. They can also help us understand that “local history” is not a static, uniform past, but a dynamic, ever-changing panorama in which industries came and went, transportation systems evolved, and people’s lives changed with every generation.
As you drive around local roads, of course you see historic houses, some lovingly preserved, some poorly maintained, some occasionally abandoned. Each of these houses has a history of families who lived there over the course of a century, or two, or three. Farms that have been preserved (with little signs put up by local government to remind you that they have been) all have histories going back over hundreds of years. (Of course, even the farms that don’t have those signs have similar histories.) Sometimes you see a modern development with one much older farmhouse in the middle. Even those former farms have histories that reveal much about local history.
Look more closely, and you can often see old stone walls that line the road or separate old farm fields, many of them now completely overgrown, and you can reflect on how farmers, after clearing the primeval forest, lugged thousands of stone out of the way so that the land could finally submit to the plow.
Then, you may notice that not all old graveyards are accompanied by old churches. Some are plots that were on a corner of the family farm. Others were community facilities, not church-related.
There are many roadside reminders of a varied past. You can occasionally see the remains of old limekilns, evoking the time in the early 19th century when limestone was quarried and burned in these kilns to make lime that was used as fertilizer and to make whitewash. An astute eye can spy out little quarries (not the behemoths of the modern day, but little roadside cutouts that you might not even notice). These remind us that not all building was done with fieldstone (again, literally gathered with two purposes, to clear the fields and to build houses and barns). Stone was also needed for road building and other purposes.
Along our roadsides are many buildings that speak of history. Many mills have survived, though few fulfill their original purposes. Gristmills ground grain for food, sawmills helped build communities by reducing trees to lumber. Other small mills and factories throughout the Delaware Valley manufactured goods ranging from cigars and cigar boxes to articles of clothing to wagons and farm equipment. More recent history gives us the notion that such manufacturing was concentrated in giant factories in big cities, but during the 19th century and well into the 20th, many factories were small-town operations employing a few dozen men and women, owned by a local family. Many have fallen victim to the times, but some survive in other capacities, as apartment houses, art galleries, or antique cooperatives. With a good eye, you can spot them as you drive down our roads.
In more rural areas, you might spot a building that used to be a creamery, reminiscent of a relatively short period when farmers brought their milk to a cooperatively operated building where it was processed into products that were shipped to wider markets. They were often located near streams of water, and there are a number of roads with “Creamery” as part of their name, just as there are many roads incorporating the word “mill,” with or without a specific name. It can be fun, and informative, to tract down the buildings that provided the origins of these names, if those edifices still exist.
Other parts of our infrastructure seem more permanent, but that may be an illusion as well. The road system may seem permanent, even as we add new streets in our developments and highways to speed our commerce. But roads are sometimes abandoned, and you can spot evidence of their old rights-of-way in your travels.
Even more than roads and canals, railroads were the innovation of the 19th century that seem most permanent. Some of the earliest railroad routes in America ran through Bucks County, connecting Philadelphia with New York, and they are very much in use today. Others, however, have disappeared, but their considerable understructures are hard to erase. The Quakertown and Eastern Railroad is now nearly forgotten, but you can find remnants of its roadbed in Upper Bucks. And although the rails are long gone, the old roadbed of the railroad along the Delaware River in Hunterdon County is a popular route for walking, running and bicycling.
Even more lost in the mists of the past are trolley routes. Most people associate the ideas of trolleys with cities, but there were interurban lines as well. In some places you can just make out the old roadbeds of these old transportation lines. One can be just barely spotted alongside River Road south of New Hope.
As you drive around Bucks and Hunterdon counties seeking out these hidden clues to local history, mind your driving so you don’t veer off the road as you contemplate an old stone wall, and respect private property. However, as you drive through our counties, you can discover more than pretty scenery. You can learn a lot about our historical heritage. And whether you are a local or a visitor, you can learn more by contacting and visiting local historical societies and finding more about the history that remains in subtle ways along our roadsides.